In an impoverished Louisiana bayou community, a six-year-old girl and her father try to ride out Hurricane Katrina. While the child hallucinates about extinct cattle. It’s an unusual plot and an unusual film, one that both captivates and baffles. It’s also difficult to categorize. Although it features disaster, Beasts of the Southern Wild is not a disaster movie – the catastrophe is a side event that merely makes the characters’ subsistence lives even tougher. There’s fantasy, parable and poetry in there, and the result is a lyrical meditation on themes from community to environmentalism.
The heart of the film is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, improbably playing a character whose name is more quixotic than her own), being raised in a dilapidated trailer by her ailing dad Wink (Dwight Henry). Although Wink is a violent drunk, the film refuses to condemn him (perhaps owing to the greater slack society cuts imperfect fathers). In times of fear, Hushpuppy calls out to her mother, who may be dead or just absent. Despite the appalling conditions, the child seems fairly happy, and she and Wink live without complaint in the area they call the Bathtub, which is the wrong side of the levee and so largely ignored by the government. Indeed, normal social mores are suspended in the Bathtub: the people follow their own calendar, kids attend a ramshackle establishment that passes for a local school and different races rub along together, united by their poverty and carpe diem exuberance.
And this is one thing that makes the movie morally troubling. Though director Benh Zeitlin avoids making overt political comment – there is no Bush bashing – the warmth with which the Bathtub eccentrics and their idiosyncratic lifestyle are depicted cannot help but sentimentalize grinding poverty, alcoholism and implicitly child abuse.
Another disconnect is between Hushpuppy the character and Hushpuppy the narrator. While a child raised in hardscrabble circumstances might gain a wisdom beyond their years, in daily life Hushpuppy is taciturn, and yet her commentary is eloquent, often philosophical. Some would also say cloying, and it’s possible to discern some environmental hectoring in the interspersed scenes of melting ice caps.
The viewer’s patience may be further tested by the slow, meandering plot (I use the term loosely). There is a lengthy build-up to the storm, and a bizarre diversion when Hushpuppy heads off on an aquatic expedition to find her mother.
Despite these flaws, Beasts of the Southern Wild manages to retain the viewer’s attention. This is partly because it is a refreshing departure from the formula that dominates modern movie-making. Just as the Bathtub is cut off from mainstream (and mainland) America, Zeitlin’s film is as far from Hollywood as a US movie can get.
Visually, it can be alluring and striking, though the beauty is of a desolate kind, epitomized by stricken bayou landscapes that nod to Apocalypse Now. This rawness chimes with the performances (non-professional actors were used), and the intensity and precociousness of Quvenzhané Wallis’s turn – she was five when she auditioned for the part – made her the youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee. It is part of the beauty among the beasts.
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
On at: Cinema Union, Cinema Digiplex